Staten Island’s ‘Ghost Town’

By    Published May 23, 2011

STATEN ISLAND – Jonathan Leiter, 52, a visual artist and poet, was born in Staten Island and lived in every borough of the city. He moved back in 1997 and eventually settled in St. George, on the North Shore, in 2008.

“It’s your last vestige of cheap, interesting and nice places to buy,” Leiter said.

Leiter walks his dog through the tree-lined streets of St. George every day. He passes the affordable – by New York standards – co-ops, old Colonial and Victorian houses and newer condominium buildings with views of New York Harbor.

But many of the homes Leiters strolls by are empty.

“It’s a real waste of space,” he said.

A ‘Ghost Town’

Lisa Wallace-Ford, 45, who lives in neighboring West Brighton, sees vacant buildings on her way to the Staten Island Ferry.

“It would make you think it’s a ghost town,” said Wallace-Ford, who works as a manager for the Department of Transportation in Brooklyn. “There’s plenty of space down in St. George.”

That used to be a good thing. In 2006, developer Leib Puretz dreamed of turning Staten Island into a new place for artists getting priced out of Williamsburg. He saw St. George, with its waterfront land, proximity to the ferry and views of Manhattan, as the perfect place.

But when the housing bubble burst in 2008, buyers from outside the borough stayed away. Many developers abandoned their plans for the neighborhood, leaving a lot of emptiness behind. The number of housing vacancies nearly tripled between 2000 and 2010, according to census figures. Nearly one out of every ten homes is vacant – 721 in all.

“These developers came into our neighborhood and built these buildings and now they sit there vacant,” said Sarah Power, 45, an architect who has lived in St. George for 18 years. “It’s not pleasant and we’re dealing with such poor economic times.”

Land Grab

Developers began buying land in St. George in 2006. When the city altered the zoning code in 2008, allowing office space to be repurposed for residential use and new developments to be built higher, long-time residents expected the changes to help transform the neighborhood.

“It seemed like an extremely positive thing,” said Power, who also serves as the treasurer of the St. George Civic Association (SGCA).

Puretz, dubbed by one paper as the Jewish Donald Trump, bought nearly $6o million in land, The New York Times reported in 2006. He built three condominium buildings, the largest a nine story converted cocoa warehouse with 101 units. Penthouse apartments started at about $1 million. He planned for about four more in St. George.

That’s when sales began to slow. In 2009, Puretz defaulted on his three luxury buildings. Most of them only have three to five residents, said Norma Sue Wolfe, a realtor for Gateway Arms Realty.

Wolfe said now it’s getting harder for her to sell a condo. “I used to show one to 30 people,” she said. “Now I show one to 60 visitors and take three to six months to sell something fairly priced.”

She said many properties stay unoccupied because landlords would rather sit on a property, looking for the perfect tenant – steady paycheck, no debt – than to rent to someone else.

Missed Opportunities

Meanwhile, some buyers have stayed away from the neighborhood because it still seems remote. “They’re a little frightened of the boat,” Leiter said.

Power said that the neighborhood lacks amenities, like a good grocery store. The SGCA recently reached out to Whole Foods, to no avail.

“They look at the demographics and they don’t want to invest time and money in a place like that,” she said.

But, some in the neighborhood haven’t given up on St. George. Leiter has been working with the Council on the Arts and Humanities for Staten Island to try and turn St. George into an artist’s district, adding more permanent galleries and more public art spaces.

But some landlords have been reluctant to let artists live and work in the same space, regarding them as too messy, Leiter said.

Even without the new spaces, St. George already has places eager to show local artists’ work.

“The opportunities are there,” he said.

And so, for now, are the vacancies.

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